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Peter baptizes the Roman centurion Cornelius, the first non-Jewish Christian, in Jerusalem (Acts 10), as shown in one of five baptism scenes on a 12th-century baptismal font in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liège, Belgium. Image: Jean-Pol Grandmont.

Blog #393: Historical Events We Can Believe

On March 14th of this year, author Steve Bateman published an article entitled, “I Believe in the Death of Julius Caesar and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” In it, he writes, ‘Mark Twain famously described faith as “believing what you know ain’t so.” He probably observed a good many Christians doing just that. But do thoughtful Christians believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus despite the evidence, or because of it? Today’s date (March 14th) is an occasion for us to consider some of the evidence for Christianity’s central claim. On March 15, 44 BC—the Ides of March—dozens of Roman senators assassinated Julius Caesar. Nearly 77 years later, on or about Sunday, April 5, AD 33, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. We can have justified belief in both events by following four practices historians use to discover the truth about the past.

1.Distinguish Two Methods. The scientific method records observations, forms hypotheses, makes predictions, conducts repeatable experiments, and analyzes results. But countless unrepeatable facts can’t be discovered with the scientific method. There’s no scientific evidence that Caesar crossed the Rubicon in January of 49 BC, or that George Washington crossed the Delaware on December 25, 1776, or that Allied forces crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944. Reasonable people believe these events to be true because they’re verified by the historical method. Historian Louis Gottschalk defined the historical method as “critically examining and analyzing the records and survivals of the past.” The “conscientious historian” lays aside personal bias, studies documents, examines relics, gathers facts, and follows the evidence. Through abductive reasoning, historians produce an explanation that best accommodates the facts. At the heart of Christianity is the historical claim of the resurrection of Jesus. Rejecting this claim by appealing to science ignores the limits of science. Paul conceded that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Unlike other religions, the central claims of Christianity are both verifiable and falsifiable through the historical method.

2. Examine Two IntervalsFirst, examine the interval between the event and the original manuscript that reports it. The shorter this interval, the closer the author is to

the actual events. How do we know Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC? We weren’t there to see it, yet we believe it for the same reason we believe most things that happened in the past: eyewitnesses wrote their testimonies or relayed them to someone who wrote them. Many believe in Caesar’s assassination simply because in high school they read Shakespeare’s famous play Julius Caesar, first performed in 1599. Shakespeare’s source was Thomas North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. But Plutarch wrote Lives in the early second century AD, about 160 years after the assassination, so he couldn’t have been an eyewitness. Who was Plutarch’s source? Plutarch used Caesar’s Gallic Wars as a source for some of his material, and Caesar was certainly an eyewitness to his own assassination, but it’s doubtful he wrote much about it. Cicero was probably an eyewitness, but he died a year later without recording details of that fateful day. Plutarch had no access to living eyewitnesses of the event, but as a prominent member of Roman society, he probably had access to documents and oral traditions that are lost to us. So, the interval between Caesar’s assassination and Plutarch’s original document is about 160 years. In comparison, the New Testament was written by eyewitnesses to the resurrection and their close associates. While Plutarch wrote 160 years after Caesar’s death, the New Testament authors wrote within the lifetimes of eyewitnesses who could confirm or deny two central claims: the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ. As early as AD 50, Paul goes on record that Jesus was raised from the dead (Galatians 1:1). If Jesus died in AD 33, the interval between the resurrection and the earliest original manuscript reporting it is less than 20 years. And yet we lack original manuscripts from either Plutarch or any New Testament writer, which is the norm in ancient history. That’s why the second interval is crucial.

The second interval is between the original manuscript and currently existing manuscripts. The historical method uses textual criticism to examine existing manuscripts (handwritten copies) to reconstruct the original. The shorter this interval, the better. The interval between Plutarch’s original manuscript and our earliest existing manuscript of Lives: more than 800 years. The interval between John’s original manuscript and a fragment of his Gospel: 50 years. New Testament scholar Darrell Bock concludes, “The Gospels compare favorably to the classics in terms of what the sources say about Jesus and Caesar. If such sourcing works for the classics and the study of Caesar, it should work for Jesus as well.”

3. Compare Two Numbers. Generally, like credible witnesses in court, the more manuscripts the better. Even sincere witnesses omit details they didn’t see or add details they thought they saw. When all testimonies are considered as a whole, there’ll be minor variants in peripheral details, but the gist of what occurred will be clear. By comparing the number of New Testament manuscripts to other ancient documents, the superiority of the New Testament’s historical evidence is clear. We have fewer than 10 manuscripts of various portions of Plutarch’s Lives, compared to 23,986 manuscripts of various portions of the New Testament. That’s astonishing. New Testament scholar Dan Wallace estimates that a stack of all existing New Testament manuscripts would be taller than four Empire State Buildings. In contrast, a stack of existing manuscripts of an average classical Greek author’s works would be four feet tall.

4. Weigh Two Motives. Even if we have a reliable representation of an original document, how do we know whether the author was reporting truth or fabricating lies?

There are normally two motives for lying: to gain pleasure or avoid pain. By Plutarch’s day, the account of Caesar’s murder was widely accepted. Plutarch wrote nothing controversial or politically dangerous that would harm his reputation or social standing. His writing only enhanced his status among the social elite. He had little to lose and much to gain by putting his historical claims in writing, gaining the ancient equivalent of a book deal. Either the earliest disciples of Jesus were telling the truth or they weren’t. But why would they lie? Their audacious claims were controversial and politically dangerous. For their eyewitness testimony (Acts 1:22), they lost status, wealth, freedom, and, for some, their lives. Historians consider such suffering to be an argument for the credibility of a document. As Gottschalk notes, “When a statement is prejudicial to a witness, his dear ones, or his causes, it is likely to be truthful.” By claiming to see the risen Christ, the disciples caused great harm to themselves, their families, and their closest friends. The best explanation for their consistent and durable testimony is that they were telling the truth. Of course, many religious zealots have been willing to die for their faith. But while many will die for what they think is true, no one dies for what he knows is false. They didn’t testify to the resurrection because it was profitable. They testified to the resurrection because it was true. The Ides of March may be commemorated today by a few history nerds, but not even banks will take the day off. Yet this Easter, billions on every inhabited continent will celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Caesar gave the world the Julian calendar, but something happened in the first century that caused us to number our years by the birth of a carpenter’s son. It wasn’t his teaching, for rabbis come and go. It wasn’t his death, for countless enemies of Rome were crucified. On this date 2,068 years ago, Julius Caesar died in Rome and the world accepts it as a historical footnote. Just 77 years later, Jesus Christ was raised from the dead in Jerusalem, and the world has never been the same.

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